Lucas Chow (pictured) recalls how he was first tempted to come to Singapore. As a student in his university days, he recalls seeing a poster of Singapore with beautiful white sand beaches, “looking like Hawaii”. “However, I remember coming over and trying to swim in Changi Beach. A taxi driver said I was crazy,” laughs Chow, as he speaks about his interest in the marketing trade, as well as Singapore.
Known by his peers and staff as a charismatic leader, Chow punctuates the interview with anecdotes and metaphors – showing a glimpse of his leadership style. We meet on the first week of his retirement from Far East Organisation as executive director, and group CEO with Far East Orchard Limited.
Hailing from Hong Kong, Chow has held various roles in many key Singaporean organisations and government agencies: SingTel, MediaCorp, Health Promotion Board and Singapore Tourism Board. This was after he started at Hewlett-Packard Singapore, working there for 20 years (he began as an engineer) before moving up to head the organisation locally.
Chow admits he has had an attraction to local companies. “I decided that after working for 20 years and gaining multinational company experience I wanted to share that experience and help Singapore companies become multinational … I think there are things from a multinational company, in terms of the thinking processes, that they can learn. It’s my way of saying thank you to Singapore and my way of contributing back to the country and society.”
Chow has also been highlighted as one CEO that has been particularly vested in marketing. One marketer working under Chow remarked how at meetings, Chow would even know the number of Facebook fans the organisation had at that moment.
It is often said that marketing is the unloved child in the C-suite, so I ask Chow why he takes a different perspective.
It’s more than just marketing
“Marketing in some sense is the brain of the entire company. Marketing starts with understanding the market, customers, competitors, your own products. It tells you how you are going to position your product against competition,” Chow says.
Other than generating awareness or brand preference, it has to generate leads. “I need to make sure every dollar is generated with some returns.
“If you and I had $1000, broken down into $10 components and stood by the MRT and handed it out, I’m sure you and I would make tonight’s news. If you can’t generate the awareness, and the leads, then the marketing is not worth it.”
Chow says the issue with marketing is most of the time, the function can’t substantiate the contribution it gives to the company, an age-old issue. The marketing function owes it to itself to develop drivers, indexes and indicators to link it directly with the business results.
“Especially when you’re working for a company that is very financially disciplined and driven, then the marketing is not getting anything. When there’s any downturn, the first budget they cut is marketing,” he says. But this isn’t the best thing for the company.
“When the market is soft or people are not advertising, if you advertise, that would be a better cut through, isn’t it?”
He gives the example of how Far East launched a project in Punggol, Watertown. This was a big project, done with Fraser and Neave. “We made a bold decision to launch it during Chinese New Year, and you know during CNY the ads are all about festive greetings.
“And we figured that you can only visit your relatives for so many days. If you really wanted to buy a property, you’d be free,” he says. Chow remembers rushing the TVC out in time, overseeing the work with the agency.
“During the NY period we were the only ones advertising. And guess what? The sales result is one of the highest records in terms of unit sales within a couple of days,” he says.
To this point, Chow highlights the importance of having a CMO who can understand the company’s larger objectives, rather than simply focusing on marketing.
“It would do a lot of good if the CMO of the company has a wider exposure than just marketing. You need to understand operations, products and what the company represents. A lot of them just come from agencies or purely from marketing and they shy away from the product or financial parts of the business. Therefore, the scope of the CMO becomes too narrow.”
Talking about his days as VP of consumer marketing at SingTel, Chow says he would make sure to work with his product, network or sales colleagues and pay attention to learning about the product and services.
“The marketing role should not just be looking at readership or number of viewers and clicks. These are a given. You need to expand beyond the role of marketing to earn your seat on the table.”
Many times in his various jobs, the marketing team would share the same KPIs as the CEO, he adds.
Branding – A CEO’s responsibility
On the flip side, CEOs and business leaders need to clearly define the brand as well.
“If I use Singapore as an example, a long time ago during the early days of Singapore, the government and PM decided what the Singapore brand would represent – transparency, low corruption, a garden city, etc.”
These are the things people today rattle off when you ask about Singapore, he says.
“The brand values are identified right upfront. Then it would be the question of how one delivers the brand. All these things have to be decided by the CEO – what the brand represents, then how you are going to develop and deliver the brand value,” he says.
Chow talks about the CEO as a brand guardian. “You must have zero tolerance when it comes to defending the brand’s value.”
Chow highlighted one of his favourite campaigns, which came from the US. He quotes a McDonald’s McDLT campaign, “Keep the hot side hot, and the cool side cool”. The problem with the burger is that because it has cold parts (the lettuce and tomatoes) and hot (the patty, cheese and buns), the agency came up with a container with two halves – hot on one side and cold on the other, only to be combined when the consumer is about to eat.
“That was very clever. It meant the agency understood the product and the customer’s issue,” Chow says.
As for Chow, what are his next steps?
“I’m taking a break, but I’ll be keeping busy,” he says, talking about possible plans to work on more local projects, such as the Yellow Ribbon project.